Key features of academic reports
Supporting your studies
This page describes and models general features of academic reports. It is likely that in your specific discipline only some of these features will apply – and there may be other requirements not included here. Departmental requirements for reports especially vary widely, so please do check your course or unit handbook, or ask a subject tutor or lecturer.
Key parts of an academic report
A report is different to an essay. There is no single right way to structure a report – the structure depends on the purpose. In general, however, academic reports feature some of the following sections:
This page lists the key information about your report.
This is a form you need to sign and include with any report or essay written that you submit confirm that the assignment is entirely your own work. You can pick up these forms at your faculty department office.
An abstract is a short (around 150 words) summary of the whole report. It should be written last. Unlike a conclusion, the abstract needs to include a brief overview of all the stages of the report, not just the results. One purpose of an abstract is to give just enough information to enable a prospective reader to judge whether they need to read the full report.
If you are new to writing abstracts, one approach is to write one or two sentences to represent each of the sections of your report. Have a look at abstracts or executive summaries in reports in the Library or online to get an idea of the style they use.
This is a separate page acknowledging the support of those people who have contributed to the assignment. An acknowledgements page is normally necessary only in major reports.
This should list clearly all the sections and subsections of your report and the page numbers where each of those sections begins. A common (but not compulsory) way to organise reports is to use hierarchically numbered headings.
After the Table of Contents comes a separate list of any tables, charts or diagrams that you have included in the report. Tables should be called ‘Table 1 [plus the title]’, ‘Table 2’ etc. Charts or diagrams should be called ‘Figure 1 [plus the title]’, ‘Figure 2’ etc. Include in this separate list the page number of each table or chart.
In the introduction you should describe the purpose (aim) of the report and explain why it is necessary and/or useful. Depending on the purpose of the report, you might break down the overall aim into specific objectives. Additionally, you might define key terms (words) that you use in the report, so that your reader is quite clear what you mean when you use those terms.
The following four sections are normally used only in reports about primary (your own) research, such as an experiment, survey or observation. If your report is based entirely on reading, you will probably replace these four sections with a number of topic headings of your choice.
In this section you describe previous and current thinking and research on the topic. In other words, you report by summarising what others have written about the topic. Because you are reporting others’ work, your literature review will probably contain many in-text citations to the books and articles you have read. In more scientific research it is common to end the literature review with one or more hypotheses for your own research. In many reports the literature review is incorporated into the introduction and may have a simpler title, such as ‘Background’.
These three terms – ‘method’, ‘methodology’ and ‘research design’ – actually have slightly different meanings; consult a research methods text for more information. This section, however, is where you tell the reader how you collected the data used in the report (i.e. your methods). You might, for example, describe, step-by-step, an experiment you carried out or describe a situation you observed. This description normally needs to be quite detailed. It is also normally necessary to explain why you collected the data in that way and justify your methods, which may need to be quite detailed.
You might include some in-text references to research methods literature to help explain your choice of methods.
This is where you present the results of your research – ‘what you found out’. There should be no discussion or analysis of those results. This section often includes tables or charts.
If you have created one or more hypotheses for your report, you should state in this section whether you can accept or reject them.
This is often the most important part of a report, because it shows what you think about your results. In the discussion you should comment on your results. This can include:
- Describing and suggesting reasons for any patterns in the results, possibly including anomalies (results that don’t ‘fit in with’ the rest).
- Explaining what you found (perhaps with reference to theory).
- Commenting on how much your findings agree or disagree with the literature.
- Considering the accuracy and reliability of your results (and how the methods you used might have affected that accuracy).
- Considering the implications of your results – what they might mean for your practice, for example.
- Discussing what further research in this area might be useful in future.
In the conclusions you summarise the key findings of your report. (Imagine you have to reduce everything you found out down to just five or six sentences.) No new information should be included. It can be helpful to revisit the aim(s) and objectives from your introduction, and perhaps to comment also on how well those aims and objectives have been met.
Not all reports include recommendations. But if your report is on a work-related issue or case study, and especially if the issue concerns problem-solving or improving practice, it may well be appropriate to make recommendations. These are suggestions for future action on the issue in the report. Usually, these will be suggestions, arising from your research, which you think will improve a situation.
This is a list, written in a very particular style, of the books and articles you read for and used in the report. A bibliography includes all sources you have used whereas a reference list contains only sources you have actually cited in your text.
Appendices are extra sections at the very back of a report in which supplementary information is stored. This could be tables of data, copies of observation forms or notes, extracts (not photocopies) from large documents (for example, Parliamentary Enquiries) to which you have referred, or any other essential information which you have mentioned in your report and to which you would like your reader to be able to refer. Put each source in a separate Appendix; Appendix A [or 1], Appendix B [or 2], and so on.
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